U.S.-North Korea Summit – Science Fiction? by Dr Namrata Goswami, Senior Analyst and Author
Dr. Namrata Goswami is an author, strategic analyst and consultant on counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, alternate futures, and great power politics. After earning her Ph.D. in international relations, she served for nearly a decade at India’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) sponsored think tank, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, working on ethnic conflicts in India’s Northeast and China-India border conflict. She is the author of three books, “India’s National Security and Counter-Insurgency”, “Asia 2030” and “Asia 2030 The Unfolding Future.” Her research and expertise generated opportunities for collaborations abroad, and she accepted visiting fellowships at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo, Norway; the La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia; and the University of Heidelberg, Germany. In 2012, she was selected to serve as a Jennings-Randolph Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Washington D.C. where she studied India-China border issues, and was awarded a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Fellowship that same year. Shortly after establishing her own strategy and policy consultancy, she won the prestigious MINERVA grant awarded by the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (OSD) to study great power competition in the grey zone of outer space. She was also awarded a contract with Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), to work on a project on “ISIS in South and Southeast Asia”. With expertise in international relations, ethnic conflicts, counter insurgency, wargaming, scenario building, and conflict resolution, she has been asked to consult for audiences as diverse as Wikistrat, USPACOM, USSOCOM, the Indian Military and the Indian Government, academia and policy think tanks. She was the first representative from South Asia chosen to participate in the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies NATO Partnership for Peace Consortium (PfPC) ‘Emerging Security Challenges Working Group.’ She also received the Executive Leadership Certificate sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, National Defense University (NDU), and the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS). Currently, she is working on two book projects, one on the topic of ‘Ethnic Narratives’, to be published by Oxford University Press, and the other on the topic of ‘Great Power Ambitions” to be published by Lexington Press, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield.
The June 12 U.S.-North Korea Summit is attracting the world’s attention especially given the drama that preceded it; for starters, President Donald Trump’s U.N. Speech in September 2017 in which he threatened to destroy North Korea. For another, Trump stated that the military option was not off the table. The U.S-South Korea joint ‘five-day Vigilant Ace’ military exercises in December 2017 that included 12,000 military personnel and 230 aircrafts – including six F-22s and 18 F-35s, both with stealth capabilities, as well as B-1B bombers. North Korea viewed those exercises as hurtling the Korean peninsula into a nuclear war. The exercise came close at the heels of North Korea testing its most capable Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-15 with a range that the North claimed could reach the continental United States. However, experts believed that with a nuclear payload, it could plausibly reach Alaska. The U.S. has a troop presence of 28, 000 in South Korea and has deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), to the chagrin of China, who views it as directed at Chinese missiles as well. The rationale for the THAAD in South Korea is to protect U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea, at best, from North Korean incoming missiles. On August 28, 2017, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan’s Hokkaido Islands that landed in the sea. Called the Hwasong 12, this was North Korea’s first military missile fired over Japan, and constituted strategic messaging of resolve by Kim Jong un, to counter President Trump’s assertion that he was buckling under U.S pressure. This was followed by a September 2017 missile test over Hokkaido islands, that flew 3, 700 kms, and reached an altitude of 770 kms before landing in the Pacific. This test was intended not only at Japan but also at the U.S. territory of Guam. This registered demonstration of some serious development in missile technology capabilities by North Korea.
Consequently, both Trump and Kim set the stage for escalating tensions, with each viewing the other as a ‘primary threat’ to their respective homelands. So, after setting this ‘escalatory stage’, they then set the stage for a peaceful dialogue and a first face-to-face meeting. On returning to the U.S. Trump twitted, “Just landed – a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” This is direct messaging to his ‘voter base’ who saw North Korean missiles as a direct threat to the U.S. homeland and believed their elected leader would find a way out of it.
In this article, I explore the strategies at play, to include the U.S. and North Korean strategies vis-à-vis the summit. I argue that despite the demonstrated North Korean missile technologies and war rhetoric between Trump and Kim, the June 12 summit has indicated to us that both leaders are willing to give peace a shot, for obviously strategic reasons. For Trump, it would establish his ‘legacy in foreign policy’ as the U.S. president that successfully ended the Korean war and denuclearized North Korea, something no other president before him has succeeded. For Kim, it would mean lifting of sanctions, an investment in his long-term political survival, and South-North unification. For China, that would mean not having to commit itself militarily to North Korea, especially in a context where the end results could put it in a disadvantage. A changed Korean peninsula without a North Korean ‘buffer’ vis-à-vis the U.S. is not in China’s interest.
So, what are the strategic goals of the U.S and North Korea, from a Trump-Kim summit? While the summit is just the start for an extended period of negotiations, as Trump indicated in his post-summit press conference, what are the factors that have motivated both sides to invest in this ‘elevated risk’ summit?
The U.S. aims to denuclearize North Korea in its efforts to maximize security of the Korean peninsula. Denuclearization addresses one of the greatest threats to the U.S. homeland from an incoming North Korean missile carrying a nuclear war-head, the urgency of which increased after the North tested the Hwasong 15. This aim of denuclearization, made a priority by the Trump Administration, is not his idea though. For the longest time now, the U.S. has made several attempts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. In 1985, North Korea acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but conditioned its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards requirement to the withdrawal of the 100 U.S. nuclear weapons from South Korea. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush declared a unilateral withdrawal of all land-based and naval nuclear weapons abroad. As per the 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium weapons in exchange of aid and easing of U.S. sanctions. However, the North’s lack of reliability regarding its commitments to denuclearize as well as the George W. Bush’s administration calling North Korea an ‘Axis of Evil’ in his 2002 “State of the Union” address prompted North Korea to restart its nuclear reactor and leave the NPT. There were attempts made by China to mediate especially through the Six party talks but failed to find any reliable solution. This chronology of U.S. efforts to de-nuclearize North Korea is critical to document, as it reveals a dismal failure to meet that objective. The pattern that emerges is that U.S. attempts to put pressure on North Korea by sanctions and calling it an ‘axis of evil’ only heightened North Korea’s need for security and viewing its missiles and nukes as ‘survival weapons’.
It is in this context that the Trump-Kim summit is critical given the optics of it, a U.S. President meeting a North Korean leader to find common ground. I will address that issue towards the end and what that means from Kim and North Korea in general.
Limit China’s Influence
By creating a possibility where North Korea is talking directly to the U.S. limits China’s role in the talks. By agreeing to meet at Singapore and not Beijing, for the summit further creates neutral ground. China’s activities in the South China Seas, the Indian Ocean, and in its borders with India and Bhutan, have created grounds for a larger U.S. role. In his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged for the Indo-Pacific region to embrace freedom of navigation, “We will promote a democratic and rules-based international order in which all nations, small and large, count as equal and sovereign…We will work with others to keep our seas, space and airways free and open”. Recently, the U.S, renamed its largest military command, PACIFIC COMMAND (PACOM) as the INDO-PACIFIC Command (INDOPACOM), a nod at India and a move that have caused China anxiety. China’s influence in North Korea looms large; its role in the Korean War; the North’s largest trading partner; its role in limiting the range of UN Security Council sanctions vis-à-vis North Korea. Interestingly, right after the Trump-Kim summit, China called for lifting of sanctions on North Korea. China wants to see the end of the THAAD deployment in South Korea as well, and therefore could be working with North Korea towards removing the rationale for its deployment; North Korean ballistic missiles. For all talk about China-North Korea deteriorating relationship outwardly, in response to the ‘Vigilante Ace’ U.S. and South Korea’s five-day military exercise in the Korean peninsula, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy (PLAN) conducted air and sea-borne exercises on December 7, 2017 to demonstrate their combat readiness with more than 40 warships from PLAN taking part in the East China Sea. On December 4, 2017, coinciding with US-South Korea joint exercises, the PLAAF conducted exercises near the Korean peninsula, to include fighter jets, reconnaissance aircrafts and surface to air missiles.
Maintain US primacy
The idea behind maintaining U.S. troops’ presence in the Asia-Pacific is to ensure that there is no credible challenger to U.S. power. The existence of the nuclear capable North Korean regime is viewed as a direct threat to the U.S. and the international order that it has crafted that helps maintain its primacy. The rise of China with a different political regime is viewed as a threat to that primacy as well. China’s help in sustaining the nuclear armed North Korean regime is not lost on the U.S. Consequently, if one reads the joint statement signed by Trump and Kim post summit, the second and third clauses: “the United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula; reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, it clearly addresses the need to denuclearize. How that will be accomplished given the North Korean regime’s perception that its nukes are ‘survival weapons’ given the Libyan model of denuclearization, one has to wait and see.
North Korean Motives
North Korea’s motives are premised on the following parameters.
1) Re-unification of Korea
2) Reassure the U.S. to Put off Pressure
3) Create a ‘Great Power’ Bargaining Situation
4) Showcase North Korean Leverage
Re-unification of Korea is one of the primary reasons South Korean President Moon Jae-in is invested in the Trump-Kim summit. While the aspirations for the type of unification model may be different, this is part of popular discourse in South Korea and has even entered the popular music genre of K-Pop. For his part, Kim Jong-un could be strategizing a U.S. exit from South Korea, whose presence, he views as an obstacle to Korean unification as well as a direct threat, more so with the deployment of THAAD and U.S. command of South Korean forces during war. North Korean leaders, from Kim II-Sung onwards to Kim Jong-un views the greatest threat to Korea coming from imperialist forces, the biggest imperialist being the United States. The second parameter is to reassure the U.S. The North Korean ICBMs constitute a threat to the U.S. homeland. The latest missile, the Hwasong-15 has a range of 6, 700 km; North Korea boasts that it can hit anywhere in the U.S,while U.S experts believe it can hit Alaska. There are speculations that the North is developing nuclear war-heads capable of targeting the U.S. Thereby agreeing to meet Trump is a calculated move to reassure him that there is a ‘direct negotiating line’ between Washington, D.C, and Pyongyang. It also reveals that the U.S. takes seriously the North’s nuclear capabilities. Third, meeting the U.S. directly has created enormous leverage for Kim vis-à-vis China, who before the U.S. summit, ignored him as a nuisance. Not surprisingly, immediately after the announcement of the Kim-Trump summit, China suddenly found itself sitting on the sidelines. Scrambling to set matters right, an invitation to Kim Jong-un was issued for a visit to Beijing in April 2018 followed by a second visit soon after, great bargaining points for Kim. Fourth, North Korea has shown that it has leverage by expressing the rationale for its discomfort especially regarding joint U.S-South Korean military exercises, going so far as to say before the summit that “it seriously chills the atmosphere of the DPRK-U.S. dialogue and is of no help to the development of the situation.” In fact, there were reports that the U.S. scaled down the military exercise on South Korea’s request especially since the exercise involved the B-52 bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. In North’s perspective, all such exercises are a prelude to invade North Korea. Consequently, Trump’s statement during his press conference after the June 12 summit that he will be stopping all military exercises or ‘war-games’ as he put it between the US and South Korea calling them expensive and ‘very provocative’, is directly addressing these North Korean concerns. While U.S. mainstream media are reporting that the Pentagon and South Korea have been taken by surprise by Trump’s declaration that he will stop these ‘war-games’, Defense Secretary James Mattis has come out and said that he was consulted beforehand. No one seem more committed than South Korean President Moon Jae-in towards normalizing relations with North Korea, and it would seem rather odd that he would not remove a cause (military exercises) that might be provoking the North to test those missiles as deterrence. For long, U.S. analysts have harped on the fact that North Korea is unreliable about its commitments to denuclearize without clearly analyzing the impact U.S. mixed signaling: demanding North Korean denuclearization and at the same time, conducting military exercises and terming it an ‘Axis of Evil’ have ensured that the first U.S. goal of denuclearization is never met.
What does the U.S. Gain from the Summit
The U.S. appears to have taken rein of the North Korean issue, delegated to other countries in the lead before; namely, China. Trump can showcase to his ‘voter-base’ that he is in control; that he is expecting Kim to meet his obligations, and in due course, if those obligations of denuclearization are met, sanctions could be removed. Cleverly, Trump has made it clear that it will take time to denuclearize, as well as incrementally establishing diplomatic relations. Trump portrayed the ‘war-games’ or military exercises with South Korea as expensive, even while flying U.S. bombers from Guam, covering about six and a half hours. He argued that it was inappropriate to be conducting war games, so close to the North Korean border, especially in the context that Trump and Kim are now seeking to establish a peaceful regime in the Korean peninsula. Interesting reference to context changing there as well as the changing dynamic, from war-mongering to seeking peace. The U.S. gains by demonstrating that it is still the primary mover in Asia, given the amount of attention the summit generated in Asia. For Trump, it offers him enormous bragging rights, and he can now repeatedly mention his ‘deal-making’ powers as well as his willingness to take risks to his voter-base, an eye on 2020.
What does North Korea Gain from the Summit?
North Korea gains a lot from the summit, perhaps much more than the U.S. For one, Kim gets to meet the leader of the world’s strongest nation, a great honor for him resulting in reputation gains back home. Second, North Korea has created enormous bargaining power via-a-vis China especially in the context of its neighborhood. China has played into the fear of a U.S. military presence as threatening to North Korea to continue creating the ‘buffer’ as well as treat Kim as a junior partner. That dynamic might have changed now. Third, North Korea cleverly utilized its escalatory ballistic missile tests, explaining their existence as provoked by the U.S. military presence in South Korea and the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. That rationale appears to have convinced Trump for now who has halted those exercises.
The Associated Risks
For the U.S., the associated risks are that North Korea will commit to denuclearize on paper, while continuing to keep its nuclear option alive and ready. This situation had arisen before, only for the U.S. to discover after commitments to do otherwise on paper that North Korea had continued with plutonium enrichment. The second risk is to be unable to have ‘verifiable and irreversible’ denuclearization process, one that is internationally vetted. The third risk is for Trump to commit to halting joint military exercises only to find that North Korea has not done much barring token promises on paper to appease him. What then?
For North Korea, getting too cozy with the U.S. will alienate one of its biggest guarantors, China. Hence, Kim will have to learn to walk a tight rope, between keeping China close, while at the same time, developing a credible relationship with the U.S. The second risk is that given Trump has invested so much in this summit, any walking back towards more nukes create risks of war. However, I see that as unlikely given the involvement of South Korea, specifically its president’s personal commitment to the process. Finally, though it may appear that Trump and Kim are on an equal footing, this cannot be further from the truth. The power difference between them is enormous and the U.S. military machine is a threat North Korea cannot take lightly.
For now, it all seems a bit surreal for Kim and he indicated as much, soon after he met Trump; “it sure feels like a science fiction movie’.
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© Dr Namrata Goswami